Category Archives: Timothy Hallinan

I Heard it Through the Grapevine*

How do you decide which mechanic to use? Where to bank? Where to go to eat? You can’t rely completely on advertisements, of course. Even if you could, it wouldn’t be possible to absorb every ad from every company. So, many people depend on what they hear from friends, colleagues and acquaintances.

Today’s word of mouth is often online, through sites such as Yelp and other rating services. But even in the days before such options, people used word of mouth to find out about other people and about businesses. Businesses depend on it, too (how often have you been asked to rate a business’ service, or ‘like’ it on Facebook?).

Word of mouth plays important roles in crime fiction, too. That’s how many fictional PIs develop a reputation. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot had a distinguished career with the Belgian police. And he’s solved any number of difficult cases since then. But it’s still word of mouth that opens doors for him. In stories such as Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun, and Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), he is deemed ‘one of us’ because his reputation precedes him. People in high places talk to their friends, who are also in high places. Those people talk to others, and so it goes. He’s even ‘forgiven’ for being a foreigner because of that word of mouth.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins isn’t, at least at first, a licensed PI. But he knows a lot of people in the Los Angeles area where he lives. And he fits in there; he’s part of the fabric of the area, so to speak. And people have learned that he’s the man to go to if you want to find someone who doesn’t want to be found. He doesn’t put ads in newspapers, or put up flyers. Rather, people hear about him from friends who know friends who know…

The same is true, really, for other ‘unofficial’ PIs. For instance, Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty is an ex-pat American who lives and works in Bangkok. By profession he’s a ‘rough travel’ writer. But he also has a knack for finding people who don’t want to be found. And he speaks both Thai and English. Word about him has gotten about, so that sometimes, complete strangers start asking around for him. And I’m sure you can think of other ‘unofficial’ PIs, too, where this happens.

Word of mouth works especially well when what you do can’t be easily described. For example, Anya Lipska’s Janusz Kiszka is a Polish émigré to London. He does have a ‘day job,’ but more than that, he’s known in the Polish community as a ‘fixer’ – a man who can get things done. That might include helping with complicated paperwork, getting someone a job, finding someone who’s gone missing, ‘making arrangements’ with people who owe money, and so on. He’s earned respect in his community, and he knows most of the members of it. But there really isn’t a job description or official title that accurately describes what he does. People know about him because he’s helped a cousin. Or a friend. Or…

Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is actually a licensed PI. So, in that sense, it’s not that hard for him to advertise his business. He also happens to be gay, and is an active part of Saskatoon’s gay community. And, in Tapas on the Ramblas, that’s exactly why he is hired. Wealthy business tycoon Charity Wiser is convinced that someone in her family is trying to kill her. So, she hires Quant to find out who that person is. She invites Quant to accompany the family on a cruise, so that he can ‘vet’ the various family members; he soon discovers that this is a gay cruise, and that his client hired him because he’s gay. Quant goes along with her plan, only to find that there’s much more to this than he thought. What’s supposed to be a sort of work/vacation cruise turns out to be fraught with danger – and ends up in murder. Quant doesn’t specifically advertise his orientation. Instead, word gets around that he’s gay.

People also use word of mouth when what they want to get or do isn’t exactly legal. For example, in William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, Glasgow DI Jack Laidlaw is faced with a horrible case. Eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson has been raped and murdered, and her body found in Kelvingrove Park. There’s very little evidence to go on, and there aren’t any obvious suspects. But Laidlaw knows that, in most murder cases, someone has seen something. It’s a matter of finding out who saw what. The problem is that there are plenty of people who do not want to talk to the police. Laidlaw finds a way around that, though. He and his assistant, DC Brian Harkness, track down a man named John Rhodes. He’s unofficially in charge of the part of Glasgow where the murder occurred, and he wields quite a lot of power there. If he wants something to happen, it happens. And he’s not afraid to get violent if that’s what it takes. He’s not any happier about Jennifer Lawson’s murder than the police are, and he certainly didn’t sanction it. To Rhodes, women and children are strictly off-limits when it comes to ‘conducting business.’ So, he puts the word out, and his assistance proves to be very helpful. Fans of Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow trilogy will know that word of mouth plays a big role in those novels, too. After all, you can’t really easily advertise your services as a professional killer…

Whatever one’s selling, word of mouth is often an effective way to get the word out. It certainly is in real life. And it is in crime fiction, too. Now, if you enjoyed this post, please feel free to ‘like’ it on Facebook, mention it on Yelp…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong.

16 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Anya Lipska, Hilary Mantel, Malcolm Mackay, Timothy Hallinan, Walter Mosley, William McIlvanney

Got to Make Your Own Breaks*

It’s not easy to be an entrepreneur. First, you have to have a good business idea – something people will want. Then, you have to market that idea to investors, unless you’re wealthy yourself (and most entrepreneurs don’t start out with a lot of money). Then, you have to have a workable business plan. And that’s only the beginning

Still, there are real potential rewards for entrepreneurs who are willing to take those risks. Ray Kroc, for instance, opened the first McDonald’s restaurant in 1955. I don’t have to tell you how successful that business idea turned out to be. And there’s Richard Branson, who parlayed his small Virgin brand into one of the most successful groups of companies in the world. There are, of course, many other examples, too.

Entrepreneurs are interesting characters in crime fiction. They take risks and they’re often bold planners. This leads to all sorts of possibilities for the crime writer. And it can add interesting layers to a crime story.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), we are introduced to Susan Banks. She and her new husband, Greg, don’t have a great deal of money. But she has a big dream. She wants to create a beauty salon, complete with skin products, hair treatments, and more. She knows exactly the sort of business she wants, and she has plans to make it happen. What she doesn’t have is capital. Then, her uncle, family patriarch Richard Abernethie, dies. His will stipulates that Susan and Greg will inherit a portion of his considerable fortune, and that’ll be more than enough for Susan to set up business. So, when suspicion is raised that Abernethie was murdered, Susan becomes one of the ‘people of interest’ in the case. So does Greg. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to find out whether Abernethie was murdered, and, if so, by whom, and Poirot agrees. As he gets to know both Susan and Greg, it’s interesting to see how Susan’s entrepreneurial spirit comes through.

One of the characters in Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit is Frank Ogden. He’s patented a special process for making specialty wood products, and has teamed up with Luke Latham, who owns a wood factory. Together, they’ve created a very successful business. And that’s part of the problem. This process relies on a particular sort of tree, and the land that the Ogden family owns won’t support the business for a lot longer. Frank’s wife, Irene, inherited a large parcel of land from her first husband, who died in a tragic accident. She and her husband, together with Latham, decide to hold a séance, and contact her first husband to get his permission to log the land she inherited. The séance is held, and is quite eerie in itself. Later that night, Irene is found murdered. Now the people gathered for the séance have to find out which of them wanted Irene dead.

In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, we meet Sheila Grey. She’s a very successful clothing designer, whose entrepreneurial spirit has gotten her a lot of recognition, to say nothing of money. She’s independent and wants to stay that way. Then, she develops a relationship with another successful entrepreneur, Ashton McKell. Eventually, both his wife, Lutetia, and his son, Dane, find out about the relationship. One night, Sheila is shot, and Inspector Richard Queen is assigned to the case. As he and his son, Ellery, look into the matter, they find that all three McKells had motives for murder. But, so did several other people.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a (now retired) academician, as well as a political scientist. She is also a mother. So, in one story arc of this series, she’s as concerned as any parent might be when her oldest child, Mieka, withdraws from university to start her own catering business. Mieka knows she’s taking a lot of risks with her idea. But, she has a solid business plan, she’s aware of the market, and she feels the need to at least try her best. As it turns out, the business is so successful that she ends up opening another location. Later in the series, she uses the same entrepreneurial skills to open a community parent resource place/playground called UpslideDown. That, too, is successful. Mieka’s character shows the combination of planning and risk-taking that’s necessary for business success.

Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty is an American ex-pat travel writer who now lives in Bangkok. Among other things, he’s good at finding people who don’t want to be found, so he’s a natural at being a PI. Rafferty is married to a former bar girl named Rose. When Rose decided to get out of that business, she knew she would have to find another way to make a living. So, she opened up her own apartment-cleaning company. She’s become successful enough that she’s now got several employees. Each one of her employees is a former bar girl who wanted to leave that business. It’s an effective way of helping others who want an alternative to the sex/bar trade.

And then there’s Harold Chavell, whom we meet in Anthony Bidulka’s Amuse Bouche. He is a successful entrepreneur, as is his partner, Tom Osborn. The two planned a wedding and honeymoon trip to France, but Osborn has gone missing. Chavell hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to trace Osborn’s movements and find him. It seems that Osborn went alone on the trip through France, so Quant traces his movements there. He’s not successful, though, and returns to Saskatchewan. Soon afterwards, Osborn’s body is discovered not far from a home that he and Chavell owned, so Chavell is now suspected in his murder. He asks Quant to stay on the case and find out who really killed Osborn, and Quant agrees. Like his fiancé, Osborn was an entrepreneur who took certain risks, as all entrepreneurs do. So, Quant finds that more than one person might have wanted him dead.

Entrepreneurs can change the face of an industry. Certainly their own businesses fill needs that many don’t even see at first. But that potential success comes with risks, and that’s part of what makes such characters interesting in fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life.

10 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Ellery Queen, Gail Bowen, Hake Talbot, Timothy Hallinan

Just a Little Smile is All it Takes*

nonverbalsWhen most people think of communication, they think of language. But there are plenty of ways in which we communicate non-verbally. Winks, smiles, and of course, that famous one/two-fingered wave, are all examples of the way people send messages without using words. And research shows that we tend to be quite attuned to those non-verbals. In fact, we pay more attention to them than we do to the words people use, or the signs they use, in signed languages.

The police and other investigators know the value of paying attention to non-verbals. That’s how they often get clues as to whether a person is lying. It’s also how they pick up on whether someone is afraid, would like to say more but doesn’t want to, and so on. It’s no wonder, then, that we see those all-important non-verbals in crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, John Cavendish invites his old friend, Captain Arthur Hastings, for a visit to his (Cavendish’s) home, Styles Court, in the village of Styles St. Mary. Hastings accepts, happy to renew his acquaintance with Cavendish, his brother Lawrence, and their stepmother, Emily Inglethrop. All is not well with that family, though. Neither Cavendish brother can tolerate Emily’s new husband, Alfred. There are other tensions, too. Still, all goes smoothly enough until the night that Emily is poisoned. There are several suspects with different sorts of motives, but neither Cavendish wants the investigation to be made public. So, when Hastings learns that another old friend, Hercule Poirot, is living in the area, it seems like a very good solution to have him look into the crime. Poirot agrees; Emily Inglethorp was his benefactor, so he feels a sense of obligation. Hastings, of course, tells Poirot everything that he knows about the night of the victim’s death. And one thing he mentions is the ‘ghastly expression’ one the face of one of the characters. Without knowing it, that character has revealed something, and it’s interesting to see how Poirot uses that one non-verbal communication to put one of the pieces of the puzzle in place.

Very often, facial expressions and other non-verbals are important forms of communication when people don’t speak the same language. That can be risky, though, because different cultures have different ways of using non-verbals. For example, in Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, we are introduced to the Thornhill family. In 1806, bargeman William Thornhill is convicted of taking a load of wood. From his perspective, he needed to sell the wood in order to feed his family. There is a certain amount of sympathy for him, so instead of being executed, he is sentenced to transportation to New South Wales. He, his wife, Sal, and their children make the long voyage and start life again in Australia. But it’s not going to be easy. There’ve been people in Australia for many thousands of years, so one major challenge is going to be interacting with them. The Thornhills, and many of the other immigrants, speak English. The Aboriginal people have their own languages. So, verbal communication is limited at best. In fact, Thornhill sees their words as,
 

‘between them like a wall.’
 

When Thornhill does encounter Aborigines, there is an attempt to communicate non-verbally. Pointing, pictures drawn in dust, and holding things out with a hand are some of the ways both sides try to communicate. And in some ways, they’re successful. But that doesn’t prevent tragedy. There’s already been bloodshed as the two groups have clashed. Thornhill himself has no desire for butchery, unlike some of the other settlers. But, he’s expected to support his own. Besides, he’s found a piece of land he truly loves, that’s perfect for him and his family. He soon learns that he’ll have to get his hands bloody, too, if he’s going to keep that land.  

As I mentioned, most non-verbals are culturally contextual. One of those is the wai, which is a Thai greeting. Like the Japanese bow, the wai is nuanced, and, among other things, reflects the relative social status of the people involved in the interaction. It’s got several meanings, too, besides greeting. It’s used in thanks, in apology, in farewells, and in other situations, too. It is a very useful gesture, and communicates quite a lot without a lot of fanfare. To see the wai in action, may I recommend Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney, PI, novels. Keeney is an Australian ex-pat who’s now based in Bangkok. She’s been there long enough that she’s fluent in Thai, and that includes the non-verbals that are used in that culture. In more than one situation, Keeney finds that that simple-but-nuanced gesture is very helpful in easing tensions and in getting her out of difficult situations. John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep novels, and Timothy Hallinan’s ‘Poke’ Rafferty novels also include this simple gesture that can mean so much. A note is in order, too, about the ‘Thai smile,’ which is also woven into these authors’ books. There are dozens of situations in which a smile is used in the Thai culture, and the context often determines what the person who is smiling is communicating. The smile can mean many different things, including, ‘Hello,’ ‘Thank you,’ ‘I’m sorry,’ ‘No harm done,’ and ‘I’m embarrassed.’

As this is posted, pitchers and catchers are reporting to their training camps to get ready for this year’s Major League Baseball season. It won’t be long now, baseball fans! So, as we’re thinking about non-verbals, and what they mean, it’s also worth mentioning Alison Gordon’s series featuring sports writer Katherine ‘Kate’ Henry, who works for the Toronto Planet. She follows baseball most especially, and Gordon’s novels often feature scenes from games, where pitchers, catchers, coaches and batters often communicate without using any words at all. Henry is thoroughly familiar with what those non-verbals mean, as was her creator, and it’s interesting to see how that knowledge comes through in Henry’s writing and in the stories.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we do communicate a great deal through facial expressions, eye contact (or lack of it) and other non-verbal means. When detectives pay attention to those messages, they can learn a lot. And it’s always interesting to see how people use non-verbals, especially when they can’t, or don’t choose to, use spoken language.

 

ps. The ‘photo is of Raymond Teller, one half of the famous illusionist duo, Penn and Teller. If you’ve seen these guys in action, you’ll know that Teller doesn’t speak during the show. Instead, he uses non-verbals to get his meaning across, and he’s quite good at it, too. If you’re reading this, Mr. Teller, Happy Birthday!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Everybody Loves You Now.

22 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alison Gordon, Angela Savage, John Burdett, Kate Grenville, Timothy Hallinan

Don’t You Feel Like Trying Something New?*

trying-a-new-seriesNot long ago, I asked you to share your thoughts about authors who write more than one series. I wondered whether you actively look for other series by an author whose work you love. Many thanks to those of you who responded!

 

Now, let’s take a look at what you told me:

 

trying-an-authors-new-series

 

As you can see, of the 25 of you who responded, 10 of you (40%) told me you’re eager to try another series by an author whose work you really love.  That in itself isn’t an overwhelming majority. So, on the surface, it might seem that attachment to a particular author doesn’t make you rush out and try that person’s new series.

But then, I noticed something interesting. Of those who responded, 11 of you (44%) said that you actively look for a top author’s other series if that series is the sort of crime novel you like. What that suggests to me is that sub-genre (or style) of crime novel is at least as important (perhaps a bit more) as the fact that it’s an author you love. If you think about it, this means that 21 of you (84%) actively seek out a new series by an author you love. Admittedly, for many of you, that depends partly on the sort of series it is. Still, that’s a hint of some loyalty to your top authors.

But you’re not blindly loyal. You also think about what sort of book you want. What does this all mean? To me, it shows there are several factors that impact your decision of which series to read. One important factor is your feelings about the author. Another is your taste in crime fiction. In other words, it’s not just one thing that guides your decision making, even if that thing is your love for a particular author’s work. And that makes sense. Someone who really likes pitch-black noir might think twice before picking up a light, fun, ‘frothy’ cosy mystery, even if both books were by the same author.

And, consistent with that, 2 of you (8%), said that you actively seek out a new series by an author you love if it’s a similar sort of series (e.g. both PI series). This tells me that sub-genre also impacts what you’ll read.

What conclusions does this suggest? One conclusion that I’ve drawn is that your choices of what to read are affected by several factors. It’s not only a matter of whether or not you love a given author’s work. It’s more multidimensional than that. That said, though, it seems that your feelings about a given author do impact your reading choices. If you’ll notice, only 2 of you (8%) told me that your feelings for an author don’t influence your choice of what to read. What this means to me is that the impression an author leaves on you does matter. If that’s true, then I’ll bet you probably avoid a series by an author whose work you’ve really disliked. I don’t have the data to support that conclusion (yet), but that sort of finding wouldn’t be surprising, given what you told me about authors whose work you do like.

What might this mean for authors? If all of this reflects the way readers really make their choices (and remember, this is a very, very limited set of data), then it might suggest something about the sort of branching-out authors consider. Some authors, such as Elly Griffiths and Timothy Hallinan, have been quite successful writing two different sorts of series. The same is true for J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith, Kerry Greenwood, and others. But it is a risk. When two series are very different, readers might not be eager to make the move to the new series, even if they’re fans of that particular author. That’s not to say it’s impossible to have two very successful, but very different, series. Several authors have done so. But it takes planning, strong writing (of course!) and some luck.

What do you folks have to say about this? I’d really like your reactions. If you’re a writer, I’d really like to hear your thoughts on branching out to another series.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe Jackson’s Breaking Us In Two.

30 Comments

Filed under Elly Griffiths, Kerry Greenwood, Robert Galbraith, Timothy Hallinan

Adventure of a Lifetime*

extreme-adventuresHave you ever been on what a lot of people call an extreme adventure? People who go on those adventures don’t necessarily do so for the kinds of goals most of us might think of at first. Many don’t take those adventures to reach a specific place, or to find food. Rather, they want to dare themselves to complete the task. And there’s something to that, if your goal is to test your mettle.

Those sorts of adventures can add an interesting dimension to a crime novel, too. For one thing, the forces of nature can add an element of suspense to a novel. After all, hiking in virgin forest, zip-lining, and climbing mountains are dangerous. For another, all sorts of things can happen on such adventures, simply because the people who engage in them are human. They have their own histories and ‘baggage.’

Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty knows about the sort of person who likes this type of adventure. He’s an ex-pat American who now lives in Bangkok. He earns his living as a rough travel writer, creating guides for those who want to forego the ‘tourist’ destinations. And some of the places he’s written about are dangerous. Rafferty is also rather good at finding people who would rather not be found. And that’s a skill that comes in useful for the people who hire him as a sort of unofficial PI.

Sam Hilliard’s The Last Track introduces readers to former Special Forces operative and smoke jumper Mike Brody. Now, Brody is co-owner of S&B Outfitters, an extreme adventure tour company.  He guides clients through the tours; and, of course, his role is also to see that they’re as safe as possible. Before their divorce, he and his ex-wife, Jessica, had planned a trip to Montana’s Pine Woods Dude Ranch. They decide to go through with the holiday, mostly for the sake of their son, Andy. While they’re at the dude ranch, another guest, fourteen-year-old Sean Jackson, goes missing. It turns out that he witnessed a murder, and is now afraid (and with good reason) that the killer will target him. It’s bad enough that Sean is so young; it’s even worse that he’s inexperienced. So Brody is engaged to go out into the country around the dude ranch and try to find Sean before the killer – or the elements – do.

Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind takes place on New Zealand’s South Island, a place of great natural beauty and plenty of rugged, unspoiled places for those who like to test themselves against the elements. In the novel, fledgling psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson, who lives and works in Dunedin, gets a new client, Elisabeth Clark. Over the course of several sessions, Elisabeth begins to trust Stephanie enough to tell her a haunting story. Years ago, Elisabeth’s younger sister Gracie disappeared. No sign of her was ever found – not even a body. This story is eerily similar to Stephanie’s own history. Seventeen years earlier, her own younger sister Gemma also disappeared – again, with no trace ever found. Against her better judgement, Stephanie decides to lay her personal ghosts to rest (and get some answers for the Clark family). She travels from Dunedin back to her home at Wanaka to find out who was responsible for so much devastation. Along the way, she meets Dan, a hunting guide whose specialty is taking clients into South Island’s wildernesses. Dan invites her to take a tour with him; and, although it’s not usually her sort of thing, Stephanie is persuaded to go. In the process, she gets a real understanding of what people find so appealing about such adventures. The land is unspoiled, the water absolutely pure, and the natural beauty is breathtaking.

In Donna Malane’s Surrender, we meet Wellington-based Diane Rowe, who is a missing person expert. In one plot thread of this novel, a grim discovery is made in Rimutaka State Forest: the remains of an unknown man. Inspector Frank McFay hires Rowe to try to find out who the man was, and how he came to be in the forest. Little by little, she’s able to put a name and identity with the remains. She finds that, among other things, the victim enjoyed the sort of adventure that pitted him against the elements. In this case, he ran into more danger than he’d bargained for, as the saying goes.

And then there’s Geoffrey Robert’s The Alo Release. In that novel, a Los Angeles-based company called Vestco is planning to release a new genetically modified seed coating that, so its manufacturer claims, will eliminate hunger. The Millbrook Foundation, an environmentalist watchdog group, has been suspicious for a long time about both Vestco’s claims and its motives. The foundation is convinced that the seed coating could be dangerous. But, with only nine days to go, the group hasn’t been successful at preventing the scheduled release, and Millbrook has decided to stop fighting it. Legendary environmental activist Jay Duggan has chosen to retire from the foundation, and return to his native New Zealand. He’s invited Science Director Dr. Catherine ‘Cat’ Taylor, and IT director Matthew Liddell to go with him for a short visit to New Zealand before they return to work. What they don’t know is that one of Vestco’s employees, Henry Beck, has been murdered, and that they will be framed for it. Once Vestco learns that they’ve left the country, the company uses all of its considerable influence to catch the three people who are now regarded as international fugitives. If they’re going to outwit their enemies, they’re going to have to make use of all of their resources, and that includes Duggan’s wide-ranging experience in out-of-the-way places. Along the way, they get help from an assortment of people, including an extreme adventurer who gives them some very useful equipment as they go deeper and deeper into the back country.

Extreme adventuring isn’t for everyone. But some people swear by the feeling of empowerment that comes from climbing that mountain, or going down that rough patch of whitewater. And those plot points can add a layer of interest and tension to a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Coldplay.

38 Comments

Filed under Donna Malane, Geoffrey Robert, Paddy Richardson, Sam Hilliard, Timothy Hallinan